Another September, another sojourn to parts north for the Toronto International Film Festival! Your loyal critic-on-the-scene returns this year older and wiser, having finally gotten the hang of this 10-day endurance test in his fourth go-round. The drinking has been kept to a minimum, which is for the best, and so has the socializing, which isn’t. But that means I’ve been busying myself seeing as much as my eyeballs can handle, partaking in big marquee premieres (I believe I may have briefly glimpsed the back of Lady Gaga’s head?), essential new efforts from international auteurs, and a few wild-card picks to keep things unpredictable. It’s been another bumper crop, and these are the choice picks from the first four days. Check back in later this week for the second report!
“Courage” is a word often trotted out for and seldom earned by the movies, and maybe it’s not even completely applicable here. But at the very least, it takes cojones of reinforced steel for Carlos Reygadas to cast himself and his wife Natalia López in a romantic-disintegration narrative that splays their innermost baggage all over the screen for public perusal. They play a married couple in an open relationship intended to free them from toxic possessiveness and jealousy, and of course it has the opposite effect. All it takes is one lie about one hookup with a congenial gringo horse-breaker to disrupt the idyll on their secluded ranch and rip open the sutures holding their love together. There’s a specific sequence of neuroses that rear their ugly heads in situations such as this, and Reygadas cycles through them with a pitiable familiarity. First comes insecurity, then paranoia, then pathetic, petty jealousy, and finally, rage.
A departure from the surrealist fits of his last feature Post Tenebras Lux, this earthbound story nonetheless expands to soul-gutting depths of desperation over three slow, symbol-laden hours. Reygadas seems to prefer training his lens on objects rather than people; he invites subjective interpretation of the connections that their shattered union has to the rumbling undercarriage of a car, a pair of agitated cows, rain soothing a cracked-mud landscape. All analytical roads lead back to a devastating futility, to the assurance that the bond between these two people has been too far warped for repair. To paraphrase the great analrapist Tobias Fünke: “Open relationships never work. People somehow delude themselves into thinking it might, but it never does. But, it might work for us!”
God bless Brady Corbet, the hardest-trying man in the American cinema. Not since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Altman-homage days has a young filmmaker burst out of the gate harnessing narrative ambition and formal daring on his level. His The Childhood of a Leader was precisely what a critic looks for in a first film, a collection of intriguing tests and experiments determining what works and what doesn’t, priming a rising talent for a breakthrough to the next level. Vox Lux, accordingly, is precisely what a critic looks for in a second film. He’s wrangled a bigger budget, and used it to hire an A-list name game for the challenge (Natalie Portman, somehow both grounding and cranking up the mania of her Oscar-winning Black Swan turn), purchase a Steadicam he uses judiciously, and stage technically elaborate set pieces flaunting his estimable abilities. Vox Lux tracks the arrival of a major voice both onscreen and off.
Raffey Cassidy plays Celeste, a star-in-the-making baptized in blood when a classmate guns down the majority of her middle school music class and clips her neck. As Willem Dafoe’s distinctly literary narration tells us, the song she writes about surviving the tragedy catches the national conscience and climbs the charts, earning her representation from a protective agent (Jude Law). Flash-forward to adulthood, and she’s blossomed into Portman by way of Lady Gaga, a gaudy pop diva with a temper and a substance problem. Corbet traces connections between the vulgarity of American culture in its last-days-of-Rome phase of decadence with the epidemic of mass violence taking root worldwide, applying approximately 10,000 times more nuance to the issue previously explored by Natural Born Killers. In 21st-century America, the eternal lust for fame has mutated into a primal need to prove our own existence on the public stage. Whether uploading a cover to SoundCloud or videotaping the wholesale slaughter of your peers, the guiding sentiments both boil down to “I AM.”
A Star Is Born
Directorial debuts from career actors are a dicey proposition. Film acting debuts from career musicians are also a dicey proposition. (For Lady Gaga’s sake, I’m willing to erase the memory of Machete Kills and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.) Remaking a movie that’s already been done three times before is a fool’s errand. Casting yourself as a rock star and casting the second-biggest pop star on the planet as your love interest because Beyoncé was busy sounds like the vanity project to end all vanity projects. So understand that I mean it as a compliment when I say I have no fucking idea how the anointment of Bradley Cooper, Major Auteur went so well.
He’s served up a steaming hot melodrama with all the fixin’s, the kind of dish where every other scene requires a character to burst into tears, and by god, it works. Like so many actors switching sides of the camera, he places absolute faith in his players, and since Lady Gaga’s assaying a hardy Jersey girl with a nuclear-class set of pipes while Sam Elliott does the grizzled-cowboy routine, their wheelhouses feel more like mansions. Hell, even Andrew Dice Clay (Andrew Dice Clay!) delivers a lived-in performance as the proud papa to Gaga. Even the whole vanity angle falls apart during a brutally humiliating scene set at the Grammys. Cooper must have called in all the showbiz favors he’s got, having successfully infiltrated Coachella, Glastonbury, and Saturday Night Live. It’s a big, shameless Hollywood contrivance that harkens back to an era when that was an exhilarating thing to be, when stars could be stars unencumbered by spandex or CGI.
I used the phrase “rigorous classicism” in a Tweet issuing my instant reaction to the latest film by number-one Hungary boy László Nemes, and a friend summarily dressed me down for what he saw as a gross mischaracterization. He asserted that the hectic, close-up-heavy style with which Nemes made a worldwide splash in Son of Saul would be utterly alien to audiences of the past, a point with which I agreed, and that the 1910s-set story would as well, a point with which I will conceded half-agreement. The narrative structure begins in a register neighboring James Gray’s The Immigrant, tracking with stately grace one woman’s bleak campaign to carve out a life for herself in the face of adversity. But when Nemes flips, he flips hard.
Írisz (Juli Jakab, such stuff as future Cannes Best Actress prizes are made of) returns to her family’s August Hat shop in the hopes of assuming the post of milliner, only to be turned away by new owners unimpressed by her surname. She’s not so easily deterred, especially when her single-minded mission starts unearthing revelatory secrets from her past. It’s the third-act lurch into complete chaos that sneaks up on you with a modernist free-for-all, and suddenly Nemes’ claustrophobic no-escape aesthetic achieves its full potential, plunging his world into madness. The guy who sorted me out name-checked mother! in his description of the immersive fracas laying waste to the laboriously reproduced period setting, and on that much, he’ll get no objection from me. Without the nagging specter of ethical breaches that muddled the praise for his intimate Holocaust epic, Nemes can claim his rightful throne as global cinema’s newest master. And the guy’s only made two movies.
Take the basic plot components of Gone Girl, move them to South Korea, and slow it all down. Slow it way down, and then slow it down a little bit more. Slow it down two more times and you’re getting close to the latest triumph from Lee Chang-Dong, cinema’s patron saint of patience. While the Cannes premiere and earlier TIFF screening drew nothing but breathless raves from the critical corps, I had trouble locking in to Lee’s frozen-molasses pacing, so let me be the first to admit that that is a me-problem and not an anyone-else-problem. The good news was that the second it ended and I could take a step back to consider it as a whole, I fell in love.
All the assorted lacunae—the interludes of silence that stretch on forever, the stillness, the overall inertia—lend a poetic touch to a stock thriller schematic with special focus placed on national themes of class disparity and lost chances. Our man Jong-su (a stone-faced Yoo ah-in) doesn’t have a whole lot going on, with dad headed to jail and a mouldering family farm to look after in his stead. Of course he hits it off with Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend he runs into at her dead-end job hawking raffle tickets. A budding relationship gets derailed after she goes on vacation to Africa and returns with a new crush named Ben (Steven Yeun). Wealthy, confident, comfortable smoking weed, and handsome as the devil, he’s everything Jong-su isn’t—including, possibly, a murderer. The friction between the two of them speaks to a divided Korea, with Westernization and affluence at one pole, tradition and struggle at the other.
If Beale Street Could Talk
In case anyone had the effrontery to write Moonlight off as a fluke, Barry Jenkins has returned to cement his status as America’s response to Wong Kar-wai. Working from James Baldwin’s acclaimed novel of the same name, he weaves another whisper-quiet romance tarnished by the scourge of intolerance, and he does so with a refined visual palette demonstrating further sophistication from an artist who showed up to the American film landscape with exceptional maturity. The colors bloom off the screen, particularly those of the immaculately assembled costumes, all warm hues and vintage elegance. The music, a mixtape of blues and jazz featuring Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Nina Simone, matches the story for sheer emotional devastation. His resurrection of early ‘70s Harlem envelopes the viewer in nostalgia, either for a time they yearn to return to, or a fantasy they were too late to realize.
Getting cast in a film du Jenkins is really the greatest gift an agent can get their client; his scripts demand a lot of the actors bringing it to life, but Jenkins can seemingly steer anyone to greatness. Kiki Layne proves herself an instant star as Tish, a 19-year-old intent on freeing her lover Fonny (Stephan James) from wrongful imprisonment for rape before the birth of their child, and they’re backed up by an ensemble without a weak link. This pure pursuit of love in the face of racism and the rigged prison-industrial complex transcends the faintest whiff of corniness through Baldwin’s beautiful prose, reverently reproduced in voice-over from Layne. As in Moonlight, he practices a doctrine of radical, absolute empathy, extending kindness and understanding to all that pass through his lens. Dave Franco makes a surprising appearance as a kindly Jewish landlord fixing to rent a loft to the happy couple. “I dig people in love,” he tells them after they question the motives behind his generosity. So does Jenkins, and so do I.